Oishi

I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten somewhere quite as apologetic as Oishi, the new Japanese restaurant on the Oxford Road. I turned up on a Wednesday evening to find the place completely empty; I asked the waitress whether it was okay to have a table for two, and she mumbled something about how most people come in to get takeaway, or phone up for delivery. That didn’t feel like either a yes or no, but then she smiled, said “yes, sit anywhere” and gestured around her. It’s a Spartan room, but tasteful and nicely kitted out, and I took a table in the window, reasoning that if people walked past at least they’d know somebody was eating there and maybe they’d come in too.

There was further confusion when the menus were handed out. There’s no way of getting round this: they were takeaway menus, proudly advising that you could have free delivery within a three mile radius if you spent fifteen pounds (which, incidentally, is pretty reasonable). Not just takeaway menus, but takeaway menus for Oishi’s branch in Brentford: the telephone number had been scrubbed out and a Reading number written underneath it in scratchy blue biro. On the plus side, at least we weren’t in Brentford.

“Would you like a drink?” said the waitress.

“Do you have a drinks list?”

There was a pause, long enough for me to realise that there was no more a drinks list than there was a menu.

“We don’t serve alcohol.”

Well, I’ve had more promising starts to a meal out, I said to myself.

Anyway, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. First, the context: I’d wanted to visit Oishi ever since it opened in August. Reading has long needed a Japanese restaurant that could rival the likes of Misugo in Windsor or Kyoto Kitchen in Winchester, both of which are terrific. I’m also a fan of Oxford’s Taberu, and when they announced that they were opening a second branch down the Oxford Road I thought my prayers had been answered.

At first things went well: Taberu did the place up (previously the first home of sadly departed and much mourned Indian restaurant Bhoj – there was a lot of burnt orange to paint over) and began serving takeaway with the promise that they’d open as a proper eat-in restaurant later on. Then, somewhere along the line, it all went awry: opening as a full restaurant never happened, then Taberu closed completely and then, after much speculation, it reopened as Oishi. Oh well, at least they didn’t have to redecorate.

I especially wanted to try Oishi because I recently ordered food from Sen Sushi, Reading’s other Japanese restaurant at the opposite end of the 17 bus route, and I’d been so disappointed. Having sushi delivered on a Friday night felt like a massive treat, but what turned up was mediocre: oddly wan salmon sashimi, sinewy, badly-cut tuna sashimi, yakitori chicken skewers with a bonus knot of gristle. I wanted to support small independent businesses, but this wasn’t as good as Yo! Sushi.

My dining companion this week was my friend Jerry. Now, Jerry is a very dangerous man to go out with on a school night. He likes a drink, but he’s retired and consequently he never, ever has to get up for work the next day: many’s the time I’ve forgotten this fact and meandered home from Jerry’s flat of an evening, rather too much wine to the good, only to face a painful awakening the following morning (and a message from Jerry, fresh as a daisy, saying what a lovely evening it was). More significantly, and uniquely among people who have accompanied me on reviews, Jerry doesn’t actually read the blog, so I can say what I like about him without fear of reprisal: believe me, the temptation to claim that he sports a mohawk is considerable.

Not only that, but Jerry told me in the run up to our meal that he’d never had Japanese food before. Looking through the menu, I found myself wondering what the least intimidating dishes might be for a newcomer. The usual suspects are all present and correct – a small selection of sashimi, some sushi (maki, uramaki and hand rolls), some hot starters and a range of hot main courses – rice dishes, noodle dishes and ramen, mostly. In the end I decided to go for a sort of greatest hits: I could try and pretend this was to fully test the range of the menu, or to give Jerry the best possible introduction to Japanese food, but by now you’ve probably figured out that it was more to do with greed and hunger.

“Have you really never eaten Japanese food?”

“No, I haven’t! The closest I’ve ever got is Wagamama.”

Jerry’s education began with the classics. I have a real weakness for soft shell crab, so I ordered some soft shell crab uramaki (“I was going to put in a request for those!” he said excitedly) and they were one of the first dishes to turn up. The presentation was endearingly amateurish – I’m used to slightly more precision and focus on clean lines – but they looked good, coated in bright orange tobiko (fish roe, the wonderful stuff that pops under your teeth), plonked on a board with a small pile of ginger in one corner and a dab of wasabi in the other. They were nicely rolled with no gaps or ragged edges, and the addition of a little cucumber added a nice textural crunch. If I had a criticism it was about size (don’t let anybody ever tell you it’s not important) – I’m used to having the same dish at Misugo where it feels like a sea monster is trying to escape from the rice, whereas these were somewhat diddy by comparison. At eight pounds it was the single most expensive dish we had, and probably not quite worth that.

I also ordered tempura prawns, mainly to ease the culture shock for Jerry: most people have eaten something like this at some point in their lives, after all. They never amaze and they rarely disappoint, but actually I was quietly impressed by Oishi’s rendition. Often menus claim that it’s tempura batter but what you get is stodgy, or greasy, or you take one bite and the rest of the batter falls off. These were very nicely done indeed – light, delicate and lacking in oil. They came with a pretty anonymous dipping sauce.

“It’s all very clean-tasting, isn’t it?” said Jerry. By Jove, I thought, he’s got it.

Sashimi came next: a big test for me, especially after such an iffy experience at Sen Sushi. Oishi has a limited sashimi selection – no sea bass or mackerel here – so again I opted for the reference dishes, in this case tuna and salmon. The slices were beautifully marbled, nicely sized and well-cut, with beautiful colour to them, but again the presentation was a tad haphazard. There was no daikon and the fish was fanned out on what looked like seaweed, which slightly affected the flavour of the pieces at the bottom.

That was a pity, because otherwise the sashimi was quite beautiful. I know some people are funny about raw fish, but for me there’s something magical about salmon sashimi in particular – the almost glossy texture, the way it manages to be both oily and pure all at once. The tuna was just as good – firm, meaty and expertly cut, everything as it should be. I dipped mine lightly in soy sauce and rhapsodised, while Jerry – showing a leaning toward the ascetic that was news to me – ate his au naturel. Oh, and there were two random and completely pointless slices of lemon: if you need these, you probably shouldn’t be eating sashimi, and I imagine they’d give purists conniptions.

By this point, I was starting to feel like things might turn out rather nicely, although I was also increasingly aware that this might have been the longest I’d ever been in Jerry’s company without imbibing alcohol of some description. Not that it seemed to deter him in the slightest as he launched into a long and very entertaining story about going to a wedding in North Devon only to meet the village character, a lady of advanced years who had booted out her husband because of his failure to perform, exhausted the limited pool of locals via Tinder and ended up working in a massage parlour because she’d said, he told me, “I might as well get paid for it”. Where did he find these people? I wondered.

Jerry concluded his tale just as our – presumably slightly aghast – waitress turned up with the next dish, duck gyoza with a little dish of hoi sin for dipping. Now, these are a stable at the likes of Yo! Sushi and Wagamama, and Oishi’s were fairly similar to the gyoza you can get at those places, but even then there were little differences – some finely chopped cucumber, or possibly spring onion, in the filling just adding another dimension. Nice work.

Finally, what I suppose you’d class as our main courses arrived. I’d given Jerry first choice, after talking him through the options, and he’d gone for chicken katsu curry. “It’s sort of breadcrumbed chicken breast and rice and a curry sauce, but it’s not a really hot spicy sauce.” I said. “It’s kind of mild and creamy, you know, like a chip shop curry sauce.” I think that latter reference is what sealed it, and when it was placed in front of Jerry I realised I had inadvertently described it perfectly. It was indeed some rice, some breaded chicken and some curry sauce, all separate, practically deconstructed you could say. I used to have a friend called Fiona who had to eat every component of her meal separately – first the potatoes, then the veg, then the meat, never crossing the gastronomic streams (well, it takes all sorts). All I can say is that Fiona would have loved Oishi’s chicken katsu curry, although I wasn’t so sure about the self-assembly aspect myself.

None the less, as before, Oishi may not have got the presentation right but the content was very good indeed. The chicken was just right – a brilliant juxtaposition of crispy and tender – and although the breadcrumbs mightn’t have been panko it was far too tasty for me to care. The sauce was sweetly mild but a very long way from inoffensive, and the rice was, well, rice. I personally would have poured the sauce over the rice and chicken and had at it, but Jerry ended up dipping the chicken and forkfuls of the rice into the sauce like some kind of exotic fondue; I found it far too endearing to correct him. Oh, there was also some salad but I don’t think Jerry touched it. I kind of found that endearing too.

My main course was teriyaki chicken, and I so enjoyed it. It was a very generous portion of chicken thigh in a bowl, on top of a bed of plain rice and at first I had reservations because it looked perfectly sticky but I thought everything underneath would be dry. How wrong I was: all the teriyaki sauce had percolated through the grains of rice, leaving a glorious sweet reservoir at the bottom that simply made everything delicious. Not only that, but the dish had plenty of other stuff going on – the crunch of beansprouts, carrots and red onion, every mouthful perfect in contrasts of flavour and texture. And the chicken, although I might have liked it absolutely piping hot, was beautifully cooked. This dish was on the menu at six pounds fifty and I couldn’t believe what superb value it was – a feeling that was only marginally dented by being charged seven pounds fifty for it when the bill arrived.

Service was truly lovely thoughout – the lady who served us was so friendly and polite (after the baffled and diffident start) that it truly saddened me that there were no other customers eating in the night that we went. There was a regular stream of deliveries going out the door, and a couple turned up to pick some food up towards the end of our visit, but even so it felt forlorn to be the only people sitting there enjoying such good food. “We did have some tables in before you arrived”, the waitress told us and I fervently hoped that was the case.

Everything we ate that night, along with a Diet Coke (for Jerry: what do you take me for?) and a pomegranate green tea (for me: that’s what you should take me for) came to fifty pounds, not including tip. None of the dishes we had cost more than eight pounds and many – the katsu, the teriyaki chicken, both sets of sashimi – felt like impressive value. We left with warm – if sober – goodbyes and an steadfast conviction that we’d be back before long, which is exactly how you want to feel at the end of a trip to a restaurant.

“Wasn’t it lovely?” said Jerry, clearly a convert to Japanese food.

“It really was. Now shall we have a debrief at the Nag’s?”

“Absolutely!”

Independent restaurants, in my experience, rarely get everything right on day one, week one, or month one. Very few spring forth fully-formed and fully-realised in the way that, say, Bakery House or Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen did. They make mistakes, they learn, they correct. Early adopters are helping with the beta testing, and it’s a high wire for small restaurants: do you open before you’re totally prepared, or do you wait until everything is perfect? Taberu waited until it was ready for eat in customers which never came, and then it closed. Oishi has done it the other way round: it’s serving customers without necessarily being confident about how to do it.

And this is where we come in. Because when places like Oishi open, what they really need is customers. Not just any punters, but customers who are prepared to overlook the glitches, the lack of booze, the slightly scruffy presentation and the rather apologetic approach. But look at what you get in return: beautifully cut, delicious sashimi. Tender chicken thighs in sweet sticky sauce with the freshness of finely cut carrots. Spot on katsu curry. But more than that, you get the knowledge that you’re doing your bit, helping that restaurant to grow and evolve, to serve a community and improve a town. I think that’s a pretty good deal: but I would, because I like to think that I’m that kind of customer. I reckon some of you might be, too.


Oishi – 8.0

314 Oxford Road, RG30 1AD
0118 9599991

https://www.oishi-reading.co.uk/

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Kokoro

Worth adding that since this review was published Kokoro has extended its opening hours. It now opens until 9pm six days a week, which makes it a decent choice for a quick, early dinner.

I’ve been out on duty with all manner of people. Family, old friends, new friends, exes (well, they weren’t exes at the time, but you catch my drift). Vegetarians, carnivores, beer enthusiasts, gin fans. Indiscriminate human Hoovers and fussy eaters, fiddly diners and messy exuberant ones. Good sharers and bad sharers, conversationalists and head-down-plough-through-the-food types. They all bring something different to the table (no pun intended), because a meal is no more just about the food and the room than a portrait is just about the person being photographed. When I match a visit to a dining companion, when I’m planning a future review, I try to think about who would like what and whom I can picture in each venue. It’s like accessorising, only with humans.

On the other hand, I’ve never been out on duty on my own. You might think this odd: why not review a place without a plus one? It’s not as if – suspend your disbelief at this point – I’m so popular that I’m beating off potential dining partners with a stick. In fact, many’s the night I have no plans and can well imagine preferring dinner alone in a restaurant to sitting at home waiting for the timer on the oven to start its incessant bleeping (and, inexplicably, watching The One Show like the televisual car crash it is, somehow unable to change the channel).

I’ve written about the delights of solo dining before, but there really is great pleasure in a table for one, under the right circumstances. One of my meals of the year was dinner in Paris in June. I ate at a restaurant called Le Galopin, at a big table on my own, sitting by the window. A good table, too – the French admire solo diners far more than we do, I suspect (perhaps they think they have their priorities straight).

It was just a beautiful meal in every way; each plate came out just at the right time, each paired glass of wine was just so, and in between courses there was ample people watching to be done, both inside the restaurant and looking out on all the revellers, drinkers and hipsters in the Place Sainte Marthe outside. And if all else failed, I could always just pick up my book (Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff, fact fans) and almost feel intellectual. It was an early evening at the very beginning of the summer, and the air seemed full of possibility. I realised many things on that holiday but one of them was this: to take time to yourself and eat something lovely, to spoil yourself in that way, was just something I’d never done.

Of course, the challenge with reviewing a restaurant on your own is a more mundane one. It’s not just about picking a restaurant where you would feel comfortable dining alone, where you aren’t treated like a pariah or given the tiny shit table facing the wall, or plonked right next to the loo. No, when you’re reviewing alone it’s also about making sure you can try enough of the menu to give readers a representative idea of what it’s like to eat in that restaurant. It can be brutal enough to base a review on a single visit, but imagine also only basing it on a single dish.

So I decided I had to pick somewhere where you could realistically eat on your own but more importantly, where I could order enough dishes to give you an idea of whether it’s worth going there. That’s why Kokoro jumped out of my to do list. A relatively new arrival on Queen Victoria Street, where My Kitchen used to ply its trade, it’s sort of like Itsu but not as sterile (I always sense at Itsu that they’re just as interested in improving you as feeding you: if I want to be improved, I’ll read a novel). Kokoro does a range of sushi and hot dishes of varying sizes, it apparently always has a queue out the door on weekday lunchtimes and my experience of their Guildford branch has always been pretty promising. I figured it fit the bill perfectly, so I made my way there from the train home, through the drizzly streets, to grab a quick dinner before they shut at 7 o’clock.

The interior is very basic, no whistles and bells: high stools along a bar on the left hand side, plain pale low wood tables and stools on the right. When I got there, just before 6, it was almost completely full. At the back, behind the counter, were about half a dozen hot options, in stainless steel chafing dishes. You can have them in a “small” cardboard tub (which, as I was to discover, is plenty big enough) or a large size for a pound more, with either rice or noodles. Also at the back was a fridge with sushi, sashimi, salads and the like. Perfect, I figured: I could try something hot and something cold and report back on the whole lot.

I was tempted by the chicken katsu curry, huge flat breaded fillets that the staff snip with scissors before ladling on the sauce. But the most appealing looking dish was the sweet chilli chicken: brick-red and sticky, like sweet and sour but without the gloop. They dished it onto a mound of rice until I thought they surely had to stop, and then they added some more. I have a healthy appetite, heaven knows, but if that was a small even I might have been intimidated by a large.

It was a hit and miss dish which left me wondering what else I could and should have ordered. The chicken was gorgeous, the coating was every bit as sticky and piquant as I could have hoped (spicy enough, in fact, that it made my can of aranciata taste almost exactly like ginger beer). But where was the rest? I spotted one or two tiny bits of vegetable in there, so few they could only have made it in there by accident, possibly on the run from another dish. And although the stickiness of the dish was no bad thing, it meant there was no real sauce. At the end there wasn’t nothing coating the rice, just a few red flecks of chilli here and there, which meant there wasn’t enough reason to finish it. Maybe if I’d had it with noodles it might have been less unsatisfactory.

The sushi was also disappointing. Everything was cold and a little claggy with no real taste, except the avocado which – disconcertingly – tasted of banana (where had they got it from?). The California roll with inari had a tiny sliver of tofu and a whacking big frigid wedge of cucumber. What I think was breadcrumbed prawn had no crunch or excitement. And although they were decently rolled, the back of a couple of them was ragged, like I’d had an end piece of the roll they couldn’t be bothered to tidy up. Eight California rolls for four pounds is actually pretty good value, and if you were comparing this to supermarket sushi I think you’d probably be quite pleased. But comparing it to anything you could get in a restaurant – Misugo in Windsor, Yo! Sushi or even (I’m sorry to say) Itsu it wasn’t anything to write home about.

Service isn’t really the thing at a place like Kokoro, but what there was of it was quite lovely. The staff were friendly, kind, helpful and told me what the chilli chicken was when I pointed at it and said “I really like the look of that one, what is it?” Even nicer – and I’m only owning up to this so you don’t think it’s all savoir faire with me – one of them opened my sachet of soy sauce for me when I was patently incapable of doing so (see? You learn things about yourself if you eat on your own often enough, like your lack of elementary motor skills). My dinner came to eleven pounds for my chicken, my sushi and my can of San Pellegrino with its natty tinfoil hat.

The place Kokoro reminds me of the most, back in the mists of time in the 90s, was a little lunch joint in Merchants Place called Orient Express. This was back when you had the delights of Keegan’s Bookshop down there, before the eyesore of the Novotel and an apartment block called Projection East (as if that is any kind of satisfactory apology for tearing down the cinema). You could get a polystyrene container with sweet and sour chicken or fish and rice or noodles for four pounds, and you could take it to Forbury Gardens with your plastic fork and spend a very enjoyable few minutes wolfing it down. How little things change: the price has gone up slightly, and the containers are trendier, but the experience is much the same.

And it might surprise you, but I quite liked Kokoro. I’m not sure I ordered brilliantly, but I liked what they did and it is still, for what it is and at the price it is, a pretty good lunch option in Reading, if you manage to get a table. I’d be more likely to go back for the hot dishes than the cold, but I’m reasonably likely to go back. Maybe I’ll take a friend and have the katsu curry, but perhaps I’ll turn up on my tod with a book and my headphones and remember that company is great, but being kind to yourself can be even better.

Kokoro – 6.7
12 Queen Victoria St, RG1 1SY
0118 9561333

http://kokorouk.com/

The Sushi Maki, Newbury

I spotted The Sushi Maki earlier this year, on a trip to Newbury to pay a return visit to Brebis, one of my restaurants of last year. I literally did a double-take when I walked past it, on the market square: A sushi restaurant? In Newbury? Not only that, but it looked lovely – lots of little tables with people huddled round them on tasteful wooden seats which looked like a cross between chairs and stools, along with a row of diners lined up at the bar. It was bright and buzzing on a Saturday night, and I did that thing I often do when I pass a restaurant I like the look of: I slowed down to a stop outside the menu, read it and made an extensive mental note before moving on.

This is a pipe dream I know, but I occasionally daydream about getting some cool Edible Reading business cards printed and dropping them off surreptitiously in restaurants and cafes to try and spread the word. Although I can picture the front perfectly (the lion logo, printed on crisp good quality card stock) the words on the back are harder to imagine. Would it just have the website link? A quick biography of some description? One thing you could definitely include in the blurb, though, is this: Will travel for sushi.

Well, if you live in Reading you kind of have to (once you’ve tired of Yo!, anyway). But I don’t find that a hardship, because I just adore the stuff. Done well, sushi is a real art form – in the literal sense – and so once I clapped eyes on The Sushi Maki I knew that going back was inevitable, if only to see whether it could supplant Misugo, my go-to sushi restaurant in Windsor, in my affections. After all, Newbury is an awful lot easier to get to – a nicer train trip, out through the beautiful West Berkshire countryside, with none of the horrors of changing at Slough.

Returning for a weekend lunch visit the place was much more serene, but if anything with less people you could see even better what a little, tasteful restaurant it was: a handful of high tables, seats at the window and along the bar, capacity for barely more than twenty people. Smart without trying too hard, a look I particularly admire. Each place was laid out with a small bowl for soy sauce, a red paper napkin and a pair of chopsticks – just the right side of the divide between pared back and austere.

I once read somewhere that in Japan restaurants specialise, so you’ll get a sushi restaurant, or a yakitori restaurant, or a ramen joint. In that sense if no other, The Sushi Maki is authentic: the menu is small, without the distraction of bento boxes, rice or noodle dishes, katsu curry or big plates of tempura. Instead it really is practically all sushi and sashimi, mostly familiar combinations with a few daily specials up on the blackboard behind the bar.

Now, from here on in it starts to get tricky. Much as I love sushi, it turns out that it’s quite difficult to write about, mainly because it’s all variations on a theme – rice, fish and, well, some other stuff. And there’s only so much you can do to lift the monotony, especially when the main other thing you’re eating is sashimi which is made of, err, the same fish you’ve just had in the sushi, most likely. So if what follows is a bit too much like a list I’m sorry, and you’ll have to take my word for it that it was more fun to eat than it was to read about.

We started with the sushi roll selection – four lots of four sushi rolls, the daily special up on the chalkboard. Some of this was downright beautiful like my favourite, the crunchy tempura prawn, all light clean flavours, a swoosh of teriyaki on top with – and I’ve never tried this before – what seemed to be crisped rice on the outside. The same technique was used in the spicy tuna roll, which was equally tasty (although it looked like there was mayonnaise inside, which I found a tad strange). Snow crab and cucumber rolls had that jarring mayo too but even so they were a delicate delight, with shreds of crab meat and laser cut slim batons of crunchy cucumber, specks of white and black sesame seed dotted around the outside (how I love sesame!). Last but not least, the salmon and tobiko roll was probably the closest to the kind of thing you’d pick off the conveyor at Yo!, salmon and avocado on the inside but loads of tobiko – bright orange roe – on the outside (not everyone will like the idea of that, but I take a certain childlike glee in feeling those tiny spheres burst between my teeth). That selection, sixteen pieces for fourteen pounds, felt like decent value.

SushiMaki1

We did go for a second round of sushi, out of pure gluttony. I had to have the spider crab roll because soft shell crab is one of my favourite things in all the world (how do these poor creatures survive when they’re so fragile and so delicious? I’ve always wondered) and it didn’t disappoint. The crab was lightly battered and fried – fairly recently, I’d guess, because it was still warm – and formed the centrepiece of big, thick sushi rolls topped with more of the teriyaki sauce and, in something of a kitchen sink approach, more of that tobiko. Only the avocado maki disappointed – the avocado was in big buttery chunks, but the maki weren’t well rolled and the seaweed didn’t quite meet perfectly. Still, bad avocado maki is better than no avocado maki, or indeed good most other things (except Frazzles. Gotta love Frazzles).

SushiMakiCrab

Oh, and we also had something called “sunshine roll”, mainly because of the name, with sweet prawn and cucumber inside, pieces of salmon sashimi draped on top and some more teriyaki sauce and tobiko to finish it off. This was so big that biting into it would have caused it to collapse, so instead I simply distracted my companion (“is that a wolf spirit fleece that woman is wearing?”), unhooked my jaw and gave it my best shot. I just about pulled it off. Anyway, the sunshine roll was quite nice, if not standout, and by this point I did feel like I was just eating something which felt like a slightly different permutation of everything I had eaten before. And that was the problem with the sushi in general, I think. It was nice. It was pretty. It was delicate. But it was all a bit lacking in distinct personality. Or maybe I just ordered too much of it, although I’m struggling to process the concept of too much sushi.

I also tried the sashimi, out of a combination of completism and gluttony. It was all good quality, beautiful sections of marbled fish and, just like the sushi, tastefully presented. But here I was mainly struck by how much you paid for how little. So the usual suspects, the salmon and tuna, were both lovely specimens – but three pieces of the latter cost you five pounds fifty. The mackerel (three pieces for a fiver) was also delicious and came topped with spring onions in soy, one of the only attempts to jazz up the presentation at all. Again, I liked it but I was very aware that down the road in Windsor you get more sashimi for less money, and you also know it comes from the fishmonger practically next door.

SushiMaki2

The drinks were good. I had a couple of thimbles of sake (50ml each, apparently) that had a gorgeous almost sweet taste which became even better once I’d started eating the sushi, all smooth with just a hint of banana. It was at room temperature and personally I’d have preferred it chilled, but maybe that’s me being a sake heathen. My companion has a thing about drinking beer with sushi – your guess is as good as mine – and apparently the Asahi was lovely. Service throughout was polite and quiet, almost shy, although neither the waitress nor the chef appeared to be Japanese (and neither was the name on the license, to my Western mind). The restaurant was busy with groups, lone people and a fair bit of takeaway trade but I never felt ignored or neglected and the total bill for rather a lot of food, plus two drinks each, was sixty-four pounds excluding tip.

So, a nice lunch then. But nice enough? Hmm, probably not quite: at some point in the meal – possibly in between the first batch of food we ordered and the second, failing that definitely between finishing the second batch and the bill arriving – I started to realise that The Sushi Maki was not going to become my go-to sushi place. It’s not a bad restaurant, by any means, and if it was in Reading I would probably go there quite often. The people of Newbury are lucky to have it right in the centre of town, and I can see it would be a good place for a light lunch, but I couldn’t imagine spending an evening there or it being a destination of itself. I found myself longing for the low tables at Misugo, the atmospheric lighting, the wider menu. Eventually, I just found the stools a little bit too high and uncomfortable, the tables a little bit too cramped, the sushi a little too pricey, and I’m afraid that’s the moment – pardon the pun, but it’s been coming for the whole review – when the scales fell from my eyes.

The Sushi Maki – 7.3
23 Market Place, Newbury, RG14 5AA
01635 551702

http://www.thesushimaki.co.uk/

Itsu

Whatever you think of the food, Itsu’s biggest success – for me, anyway – may be how it’s transformed the bottom of Queen Victoria Street, banishing the grisly memory of temporary shop after temporary shop selling nylon shoes or mobile phone accessories. It gives that corner a certain glow, all shiny, fresh and welcoming; it’s strange how even though it’s only been open for a couple of months, it somehow feels like it’s been there forever.

It forms part of a long-established trend, which on balance is probably a good thing, of smaller, more exclusive chains picking Reading to be in the vanguard for any expansion plans. Bill’s started this, of course, and then there was Five Guys, but although Itsu is the latest it’s unlikely to be the last: West Country pizza and cider chain The Stable is rumoured to be opening on Bridge Street, and Bristol-based barbecue specialists Grillstock were linked to a site on Friar Street recently.

Itsu wasn’t top of my wish list of chains (I’d love a branch of Leon or Busaba, personally) but it’s an intriguing prospect – a place offering healthy lunches and dinners low in calories and saturated fats. Salads, smoothies, sushi, sashimi: splendid, surely? I’m one of those people who goes to Yo! Sushi with the best of intentions and then ends up ordering anything and everything the kitchen has to fry, but I decided to put my reservations (and my love of alliteration) to one side and give it a try one weekend lunchtime.

Inside, the chillers are packed full of options – sushi and sashimi on the left and salads on the right (although many of the salads are in fact on a bed of sushi rice, which in some cases can make your dish look more like maki that couldn’t be bothered to get dressed). There’s also a range of hot noodle and rice dishes which you pick up at the counter. I decided to order a little of everything – in the interests of balance, naturally – so I headed up the stairs with a heavy tray and a growing sense of excitement.

Now, before I get on to the food I’m afraid I need to wax lyrical about the view from upstairs, so feel free to skip this paragraph. It really is a gorgeous spot up there, full of tastefully done long tables with stools, USB charging points – which could come in handy if you plan to be on your iPhone for longer than, I don’t know, fifteen minutes – and most importantly a gorgeous first floor view out across town through the lovely floor to ceiling windows. In one direction you get to look up Queen Victoria Street, a symphony in Victorian red brick only equalled by the Town Hall, in the other you get to gaze out on John Lewis, one of Reading’s most handsome and iconic buildings. You can even make out, behind some of the façade, the word “HEELAS” in block capitals on the front of the building, a little detail for those of us who still think of it that way. It made me realise how few restaurants in Reading give you a view to go with your food, unless you happen to be a fan of Ed’s Diner (is anyone, I wonder?).

That architectural diversion aside, let’s start with the good news: the chicken teriyaki potsu (Itsu’s slightly twee way of saying it comes in a cardboard pot) was truly splendid. Lots of slices of tender thigh meat, so much more interesting than breast, sat on top of a big pile of brown rice, itself so much more interesting than white rice. Interesting is the right word in general, because it managed that rare trick of making sure there simply wasn’t a dull forkful – so much going on in the rice, with beans and petit pois adding a bit of crunch, leek for sweetness and little ribbons of piquant ginger running through the whole lot.

At first I thought the dish looked a little dry and that I might need to top up with the sauce bottles at the table, but digging deeper I got to the liquor, a wonderful sweet-salty mixture of teriyaki and broth that made every mouthful magnificent. If I was being critical it was warm rather than hot, but even having said that I could happily eat this every week for a year and never get bored. At little over a fiver it felt fairly priced for lunch and keenly priced for a light dinner, too.

ItsuPotsu

The sushi was less successful. An assorted pack of small maki – seven each of salmon and avocado – felt a bit clammy, claggy and unremarkable. I didn’t mind them, and at about four pounds fifty they clocked in very reasonably compared to Yo!, but they were difficult to get excited about (a shame, because I adore avocado maki). I nearly didn’t order them because I wasn’t sure how much they would tell me about the kitchen’s skills but as it turned out they were badly rolled, with most of the maki having gaps where the seaweed didn’t form a complete circle.

ItsuMaki

Prices in general are quite variable at Itsu, so although these were fairly competitive the sashimi and some of the bigger maki are priced outside the territory of a light lunch on the run. One of the salads I considered buying – a piece of rare salmon, some leaves and some dressing – was just shy of eight pounds, and I’m really not sure who out there is going to buy an eight pound salad from Itsu.

The other dish I ordered, to cover all bases, was vegetable dumplings on a bed of sushi rice. I quite liked the dumplings but quite liked is probably as far as it goes. They’d been steamed and then chilled, giving the outside a texture just the right side of cardboard, but the filling was decent enough. They were sprinkled with something that looked and tasted like togarashi which gave them a bit of oomph and the wee pot of teriyaki sauce on the side added savoury depth to the proceedings. It didn’t quite disguise that texture, but it did make them feel a bit less like a health food.

They came on a bed of rice, a thick layer of carbohydrates which didn’t remotely go and felt like hard work towards the end. You pay a quid extra to have this edible plate, and with hindsight I don’t think it was worth it. I did find myself thinking about Sapana Home, a hundred yards yet a whole world away, where you get a huge plate of freshly-assembled, freshly-cooked momo for only six pounds. I also worried about how many people would never discover Sapana Home because they never looked past Itsu’s snazzy exterior.

ItsuDumpling

I couldn’t quite bring myself to order a “raw smoothie” for just under a fiver (perhaps I’m not cut out for this whole healthy eating caper, because I just found myself thinking I could get a pint of cider and a packet of Scampi Fries in the Allied for that), so instead we went for a couple of drinks from the fridge. Coconut and lime pressé, which isn’t made by Itsu, was light and refreshing, although I got more lime than coconut. The carrot and ginger juice drink (also known as “Detox iii”: what a horror movie that would be), which is made by Itsu, was pretty grim. I was expecting something like the terrific carrot and ginger juice you can get at Bill’s but this was a nasty, thin, watery pastiche of proper juice. Looking at the label I got a vague idea why: water was the single biggest ingredient in it. It also contained a mysterious substance described only as “Thorncroft detox cordial”, which sounds about as enjoyable as an hour stuck in a lift with Gwyneth Paltrow.

That sums up my problem with Itsu, because it doesn’t make healthy eating as fun as the happy-clappy blurb on the website and the pictures of people enjoying volleyball outside the shop suggest it will be. The staff are lovely, and my hot chicken teriyaki dish was beautiful – if I went back, it would be for more of that – but still something about the place jarred with me. Even the cans of Coke in the fridge are a mingey 250ml rather than the standard issue 330ml (drink them if you absolutely must seems to be the message). The meal for two, three dishes and two drinks, came to just over eighteen pounds, which feels like a lot for what we had, especially when you think how much of it was just rice. Also, I’m just not sure when I would eat here rather than spend less and go to a café or spend more and go to a restaurant. I have no doubt that Itsu will do extremely well – the crowds already suggest I’ve got this one completely wrong – but it left me really fancying a KitKat Chunky. Or some Frazzles. Or a chip butty. Something tells me that wasn’t their intention.

Itsu – 6.6
31 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY
0118 4020979

https://www.itsu.com/locations/shops/reading_UK69.html

Misugo, Windsor

At the start of the year, AltReading asked me to contribute to a piece about what people wanted to see in Reading in 2015. So I talked about some of the big gaps in Reading’s restaurant landscape – that we need a tapas restaurant, a pizzeria, a town centre pub doing simple, tasty, well-executed food and so on. It wasn’t until later that I realised that my list of gaps itself contained a gap: Reading doesn’t have a good Japanese restaurant. There’s Sushimania, which can be okay (when it’s not too busy – and woe betide you if it is, because a person can get very drunk on their house white waiting for the food to turn up. Take my word for it) and there’s Yo! Sushi. That’s it.

That partly explains why this week’s review is of a restaurant in far-flung Windsor, the furthest from Reading to date. The thing is, I suspect the reason I didn’t put a Japanese restaurant in my original wish list is that, for years, when I’ve wanted Japanese food I’ve got on the train and gone to Misugo instead. It’s a modest little place just opposite Windsor’s Firestation Arts Centre, about a ten minute walk from the station (a walk which takes you right past a very good fishmonger, a few doors down from the restaurant – something which might explain a lot). It’s nothing to look at from the outside, and pretty understated on the inside. Every time I’ve been (and I’ve only ever been at lunchtimes) it’s virtually empty: it’s rare to see more than one other occupied table. It also happens to do fantastic sushi.

Arriving on a Saturday lunchtime without a reservation, I was delighted to see that they had a booking for a big table, even if it meant that I didn’t get my usual seat next to the window. It’s a long thin room split across two levels and it really is very basic – plain wooden tables, plain wooden stools and simple, elegant (if atmospheric) lighting. But that simplicity feels like a bit of a hallmark which carries across into everything else – unobtrusive service and simple, brilliant food.

The menu is one of those big, tempting ones that requires several attempts in a single sitting (I envied the big table which turned up a little after I arrived – eleven fellow diners would give you the opportunity to try a lot of the options), divided into sashimi, sushi, small hot dishes, rice dishes and noodle dishes. They also do a small, if tempting, array of bento boxes if you want someone to make your tricky decisions for you: I didn’t, but the woman at the table behind me had one and it looked nearly enviable.

First to arrive was the sashimi, which was beyond reproach. If you’re used to Yo with its little dishes, a few small slices of salmon trundling round under a plastic dome on the belt, the sashimi at Misugo – in terms of the presentation, the range and the sheer quality – is like going from a standard picture to HD. So the salmon here came as four beautiful thick slices, beautifully marbled, fresh and clean, as soft as mousse. I’m no expert on sashimi, but I don’t think that marbling and that texture happens by accident or luck. The tuna was firm, meaty and distinctly unfishy (as odd as that sounds). If sashimi has never appealed to you then tuna from Misugo is the perfect gateway fish. Finally, the biggest revelation: four sections of mackerel, complete with shimmering skin. I always order the mackerel and it always blows me away, somehow strong and subtle all at once in a way few dishes (and few people, come to think of it) ever manage. We gently transported them onto our tiger-striped plates with chopsticks, dabbed them in soy, added ginger and popped them in our mouths, and then we were transported ourselves.

Sashimi

Sushi was every bit as good. Avocado maki were plump things, tightly rolled, each with a big fat core of ripe buttery avocado. But there was more going on: a hint of what tasted a bit like lime, tucked between the rice and the delicious green flesh. Again, this was a world away from anything you might pluck from a conveyor belt. Soft shell crab maki – the crab still warm as it reached our table – were gorgeous to look at, the crab almost looking as if it was making a break for it. All of a sudden I didn’t envy that table of twelve half so much, because it was difficult enough sharing these between two.

Maki

The waitress asked if we wanted another look at the menu and saying no felt like the worst kind of folly, so we rounded up more options and ordered again. Vegetable gyoza were gorgeous – lighter than they looked, like crispy islands floating on the smallest, subtlest pool of vinegary dressing. More maki – this time grilled tuna with mango – were also delicious, the tuna soft and the mango fresh and firm rather than soft and ripe as the avocado had been. A little drizzle of sauce over them added a deep, fruity note.

Last of all, the only misfire of the whole meal. Chicken yakitori looked the part – thigh meat threaded like a sine wave onto skewers, grilled, brushed with sticky sauce and scattered with sesame seeds. But they needed to be more: more well cooked – the slightly charred bits were a delight, the rest a bit of a chore – and with more of the gloriously smoky sauce. They were the only thing we didn’t finish, although by that stage we were too full to ask for dessert anyway. Anywhere else, it would have been a good dish, but Misugo had set the bar too high by then. I was sad that they played their worst song as the encore, but I’d loved the concert too much to hold it against them.

Being on the wagon in a Japanese restaurant, it turns out, is less of a hardship than you might think. I was tempted to try Calpico, a Japanese yoghurt drink (and if I’d known it tasted just like Yakult, which apparently it does, I definitely would have) but in the end I opted for something which was described as an “aloe vera soft drink” and tasted a bit like orange squash on a gap year. I liked it enough to order a second, at which point the waitress told me with a smile that you could buy it in Sainsburys, even going so far as to check which my local branch was.

Service was perfectly judged – polite, distant when you wanted to be left in peace but there when you needed it. Nobody at Misugo is ever going to make your teeth itch with excessive – or indeed any – mateyness, and they probably won’t ask whether you enjoyed your food either (most likely because they’re rightly confident that you will). But it was restrained and tasteful, just like everything else. Lunch for two – a total of three soft drinks and eight small dishes – came to £47 not including tip, which I thought was excellent. Even as I left I was wondering why I’d left it so long and when I could go back, and envying anyone for whom this restaurant was their neighbourhood restaurant.

Actually, that last bit might not be entirely true. It’s very tempting, when you eat somewhere great that isn’t in your home town, to say “I wish I could pick this up and move it to Reading”, but on reflection I’m happy to keep Misugo exactly where it is. I like Windsor. I like feeling excited about going there when I get on the train (even knowing that I have to change at Slough doesn’t put me off). I like strolling down Peascod Street, past the boutique called “Cognito” (that always tickles me: as an anonymous reviewer I feel I ought to go in at some point), seeing the fishmonger on St Leonards Road and knowing I’m nearly there. And, perhaps most of all, I like the fact that it’s close enough to get to, but just far enough away that I’ll never tire of it: a balance almost as fine as their food.

Misugo – 8.5
83 St Leonards Road, Windsor, SL4 3BZ
01753 833899

http://misugo.co.uk/